Research is the Secret of a Winning Sales Call

Although no one would admit it, more than a few competent attorneys have been known to wince when the idea of doing a sales call has been suggested as part of their marketing planning. The usual retort is, "Sales is solicitation; we don't do it," or (sniffing), "It's unprofessional."

Let's take an alternative view for a moment. Sales is merely the last stage of the marketing process. A sales call per se is not a solicitation in many situations. Introducing oneself to a prospective client as a follow up to a referral or meeting at some past event, a beauty contest, or a meeting to evaluate the working relationship (a client review) are sales calls, not solicitation.

In reality, we do sales calls all the time and should do them more often, but my experience has shown that lawyers can increase marketing results by focusing on three issues their commercial colleagues learn early on: (1) preparation is the most critical factor; (2) the usual service menu is a commodity and unpersuasive; and (3) sales calls have a definite structure, which collapses when one element is left out.

It is not enough to review past history or chat with colleagues about an upcoming sales call. If a sales call is viewed as 100 minutes of explanation, effective competitors spend 60-plus of those minutes learning about the buyer and the competition. For lawyers, efficient preparation help is at hand: Use search engines to conduct research. I would want to look at industry news, company news and financials, including SEC filings. I would search by an individual's name, and run the same search (obviously without some elements) on competitor law firms and the company's competitors. To flesh out this information, particularly for multinational companies, I would run a search on industry and company news through web sites at Business Week, The Financial Times (www.ft.com), The Economist (www.economist.com), and the company's own web site.

This portfolio of information may provide two things: a rationale for meeting, and a means of developing opportunities for work, expansion or cross-selling.

You may have discovered from your research that a company faces new business issues (structural, financial, marketing problems including product liability), litigation, or is expanding geographically. A rationale removes the inherent discomfort of calling to ask for a meeting and obviates the lawyer's objection of "they already have counsel." Your sales objective then is to become No. 2 on the counsel list so when present counsel appears unresponsive, you can be chosen.

For example, a commercial litigation and transactional firm noticed from its research of a client that it was expanding internationally, but the firm was not getting any of that work -- distributor selection and contracts, etc. -- and made an appointment to meet the newly named business development director using its research as a rationale to meet. During the sales call, the firm found it had received no work on the international side because the decision-maker did not know of the firm's previous history or expertise. The firm got a small matter that provided an entre to more work later, displacing the original law firm.

Competitive information -- your competitor's and the company's -- often is overlooked. The use of information on other legal competitors won't supply you with negative sales points, but will inform you of crucial timing issues in light of their changing capabilities. Did they hire (or lose) staff whose capabilities replicate your own firm's? Did the competitor(s) win a big new client that may presage inattention to the corporate client? It may be time to schedule the call.

How your client is faring in its competitive marketplace is equally important because it is the source of your and the client's paychecks. That being said, underscore your understanding by asking yourself: How can I help my client do better in its marketplace? Or, is there a particular business issue that must be solved to support the company's success? The answers to these questions, based on your research and face-to-face meeting with the client, yield opportunities to provide unique services that separate you from the pack of competitors.

Making a match

For example, let's say your client suffers from high turnover among its sales staff. Perhaps you cannot remediate this problem, but maybe you know a business manager in another company who has successfully tackled this problem. Get them together -- and your arrangement of the meeting is the "product" your client will remember. Alternatively, perhaps your firm's work in employment law has developed an expertise in employment contract terms that promote longer tenure.

Does the client need training (or some other use of your firm's expertise), contacts on a professional or personal level, the expertise of some other non-lawyer professional you may know? These extras, known as "value adds" in commerce, are just as important as your legal services to the extent they're unique; your competitors may duplicate your efforts, but it will take them time to catch up -- probably six to nine months -- and once they do, they will have produced a me-too commodity. I know a number of firms whose marketing strategy centers on making competitors spend time and money just trying to catch up. Value adds are not tied to your product, i.e., legal services, but are additive and differentiating. That makes you harder to replace and gives you leverage on pricing issues if your service package, including value adds, is different from competitors, shouldn't the price be different also?

Sales calls structure

Theater and effective sales calls share in the necessity for effective stage management. The structure of what happens is important, and the lack of one element often is disastrous. Unlike theater, however, events in a sales call don't roll out in the same order day after day. In the chaos of reality, plan to address these three questions: Why should I listen to you? What's in it for me? Why should I make a decision? Why listen? In starting the meeting, remind participants why you asked for the meeting: "In researching your industry and company, I noticed your sales turnover rates are higher than your competitors. While we have been structuring your distributor contracts, I want to discuss with you how our employment law group and some of our contacts might assist you with reducing turnover." Having addressed the reason to listen with a strong benefit, the meeting can move ahead.

What's in it for me? "Turnover reduction may not be within your jurisdiction, but I would guess that reducing that expense might be viewed positively . . . " You may need to address more than one personal/professional benefit to answer this question if there are numerous decision-makers.

Why should I make a decision? To answer this question, consider the client's personality style because it will predict what you must do and say to persuade them into taking action. Two variables -- risk-taking style and interpersonal sensitivity -- divide personalities into four categories: analytics and amiables are both risk-averse, fact-oriented, but amiables care what others think about them. Being risk-averse, frame your pitch around safe choices and start with the facts, not the big picture. Drivers and expressives are OK with risk, but expressives care about their colleagues' perceptions of them. Being big-picture folks, build your case on larger issues, not small details, framed as "good risks." With both expressive and amiables, make sure you address the interpersonal issue -- how their decision makes them look good, doesn't ruffle anyone's feathers, step on toes, or damage the politics.

Although people don't operate in only one personality mode, they do tend to use one more heavily, particularly when brought to the brink of a decision. Good selling!

This article has been reprinted with permission from New Jersey Lawyer, January 5, 1998.